Up to this point in this series on the 12 failure modes in agile transformation, I’ve covered topics around failure in leadership, failure in workflow and failure in congruency. These last three failure modes concern the overall sense of “transition”: How are we tending to our sense of change—not just as steps in a process, but as humans and teams in transition?

When we leave the human context behind — when we ignore the time, safety, and direct experience required to shepherd us through change — we have failures in transition.

10. Ineffective Plan for Transforming Beyond IT

So often, when I speak with executives about their agile transformation, they’re looking at how to build products faster: getting to market faster, with more innovation, by making their engineering teams more efficient. They bring this “work order” to their product or IT group and declare that an agile transformation is in play. Teams align along some scaling approach and metrics are gathered around overall productivity. But speeding up value delivery by concentrating your transformation on product development is sub-optimal.

 (Flickr, The Commons)

Concentrating agile transformation in the development organization looks slick. It’s something we can grab onto. Its practices have a sense of speedy efficiency around them, and that’s enticing. It can grab the hearts of people who thrive on heroics. Testers, developers and UX are “transformed” into a new way of working across the product teams. Through their work, the product engine begins to attain the purr of feature delivery. But is this truly transformative?

The essence of a great agile transformation is having a vision that goes far beyond how engineering teams align their practices in delivery cadences. A real transformation takes in the whole system.

With brutal honesty, we must look in a mirror that reflects our entire system of value creation and delivery and ask, “This being so … so what?”

 (Flickr, The Commons)

In other words, given the state of our business—our whole machine—how we can be transformative in an enduring way?

  • Declaring the transformation from the executive level is insufficient.
  • Rolling out all teams at once is insufficient.  
  • Starting up teams randomly is insufficient.
  • Training everyone at once is insufficient.

Each of these is a useful but ultimately ineffective action, leaving the transformation sputtering toward a “GEFN” (Good Enough For Now) end state.

At a recent conference, I was talking with a gentleman about agile at its most basic level. He had no idea what it was and why people would want it for their engineering teams. As I talked about small teams in cadences of delivery that are bounded by planning and reflection, he asked about scaling. What can possibly be useful about agile in really complex situations? To confirm the agile approach specifically in complex environments, I referred to some of the “probe / sense / respond” language from the Cynefin view of complex thinking. That is, agile groups in complex domains recognize the need to create innovation through practices that emerge from action and reflection.

 (Snowded, Creative Commons)

We took our discussion out to the corporate level as I explained how our organization had been applying agile practices at a corporate level for years. I also brought in some of the lean principles that guide software agility but also can guide businesses. In the end he asked me why people were just talking about agile in the product development space; why weren’t we thinking larger and broader into the business overall? Indeed.

We can turn this around. An agile transformation is far bigger than the efficiency of delivery teams; it goes beyond IT. Imagine your transformation looking like this:

  • Led by a visionary leadership team that wants to transform the way the entire company does business
  • Guided by lean principles of value flow, pulling work in a smooth flow, and continuously improving your work so that you continuously set yourself up to innovate
  • Encouraged to reduce organizational friction in processes and interactions
  • Informed by recurring value stream mapping that invites teams to push the boundaries of the stream up and out
  • Invigorated by increasing employee respect and admiration for the tribal work
  • Engaged in a bias toward learning through transparency and collaboration
  • Coordinated across the value stream in a synchronized cadence of action, learning and planning
  • Set in an orbit around customers as your sun with the entire organizational trajectory spirited by the pull of customer value

11. Viewing Transformation Solely as Process and Structure

My sister Claire doesn’t own an ATM card. This is not because there are no ATMs where she lives; her metropolitan area is surrounded by them. When I asked her, “Why no card?” she said, “Jean, I like to go to the bank. It’s all about the people.”

 (Flickr, The Commons)

How we get our money is a conscious choice. For Claire, that means creating and maintaining a relationship with the people at her local bank. That bank earns her business through how they “show up” for her; they’ve created an unspoken bond of loyalty.

When we define our agile transformations, what are we doing to create “Claires”? Do we seek to inspire loyalty to the transformation effort? How does the transformation lead teams to engage with their colleagues in defining success beyond practices and metrics? What would loyalty look like?

To be clear, process and structure are necessary. But they are insufficient. And worse, they can lead to a false sense of success in the transformation. We’ve checked off the boxes, but we haven’t checked in with the people.

When I think about this agile transformation approach I fear the adoption of a something akin to a cargo cult science: “cargo cult agile.” That is, if we simply apply these practices and measure these things, surely success will come. If people fail in adopting the practices or fail to live up to the metrics, there is something wrong with the team. If you don’t get the results you want just add more process, structure and metrics. If the transformation is considered complex (and what transformation isn’t, when you’re in a large organization) we rely on process and structure all the more. Again, process and structure are necessary—and clearly they must be used as a guide for appropriate synchronization of the transformation effort—but alone, they are not enough.

My colleague Rachel Weston Rowell recently pointed me to a New York Times article about how IBM is changing the way it works. It’s embracing design thinking and aggressively rolling out training to guide how the company reinvents itself. Virginia M. Rometty, IBM’s chief executive, and her executive team were among the first to embrace the new approach. The training varies, with executives getting one-day sessions; product managers, a week; and new designers, three-month programs. In all, about 8,000 IBM employees so far have had some in-person training in design thinking. It’s an impressive number, but it’s also only two percent of the IBM workforce.

Why design training? Because transition must start with empathy: we must invite ideas that depart from our normal mode of creating and executing. As we move through agile transformations, empathy must be the driving force guiding how we engage with individuals. What do they want? what are they willing to let go of? What advice do they have about success? What might it look like to embrace a larger sense of “team” across many teams during the agile transformation? And finally, how can all this great process and structure truly transform how we passionately engage in the work we love?

In this vein, we must consider how people will fit: how their personal values will align with the aspirational values an agile transformations invites us to hold dear. In her TEDxMileHigh talk, Natalie Baumgartner talks about “fit” for people in their work. As she describes it, fit goes far beyond role descriptions and responsibilities. It guides our willingness to engage in a new view of how we work that supports our values, our personalities and our communication styles.

 (Flickr, Creative Commons)

For my part, a great agile transformation feeds off of people’s positive perspective of the change. As Natalie says with regard to fit, “It’s definitely a risk to make a change; it is a much greater risk to stay where you don’t fit.” Agile transformation involves myriad risks. Use these risk situations as an opportunity to reflect on what’s going on beneath the surface of the process and structure.

12. Ignoring the Path of Individual, Team and Organizational Transitions

So far I’ve covered 11 failure modes in agile transformations. And yes, there are other modes in different technical and organizational contexts. But I’ve saved this failure mode for last because I believe it’s the least understood, and hence the least addressed.

We ignore the work of true transition not just at the organizational level, or even at the team level. We ignore the work of transition for each individual impacted by the transformation.

Here’s what I’m thinking. In any large transformation effort, even when we just know it’s good and for the right reasons, there’s always someone who has something to lose — whether true or imagined. An entire team can bristle at the “directive” to “go agile.”  Directors who’ve attained their stature through their ability to push through adversity are now being asked to find their significance in how they guide and serve, not push. Heroes are losing their motivation as the firefighters as they’re incentivized to work collaboratively in support of the team. Teams are asked to alter their composition and perhaps their highly guarded bond. All of this in the name of a well-meaning agile transformation.

Often, an agile transformation is driven by a fear of market shifts, of disruptions that can obliterate your customer base. In this tumultuous environment, we recognize the need to change how we work to deliver innovation and value. But perhaps we don’t recognize the underlying organizational unease this sets in motion. The well-meaning goal of creating a better way of working generates the unintended consequence of a big pile of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.)

 (Flickr, Creative Commons)

What to do?

In his books, Transitions and Managing Transitions, William Bridges encourages organizations to engage in transition “rituals” that smooth the way and bring individuals along with the change. A vision with a goal in mind is a great start, but starting with the beginning is not. The small or large set of changes that an agile transformation asks of us needs more scaffolding to truly attain that goal. Our effective transformations acknowledge these three important stages of transition, in this order:

  • Endings. People in transition often go through a subtle cognitive shift; they gradually stop thinking of the “we” and move to an “I” in something of a “mourning,” stimulated not by the transition process itself but by their personal reactions to the process. People can find themselves disoriented and disenchanted. In this stage, we guide team members to let go of what they’ve believed or assumed about themselves or about how they see themselves in their work environment and their attitudes towards others.
  • The Neutral Zone. To move forward, we accept the reality of the gap between what was and what may be, sort of standing in the middle of the street. You can’t stay here forever, but you know you need to be here to get to the other side. I often talk with teams about “the goo of ambiguity.” You’ll know you’re in the neutral zone when you find yourself smack dab in the middle of that uncomfortable unknowing. In this organizational and process wilderness, you can begin to craft a different reality that can enhance or expand what might not have seemed plausible before.
  • The New Beginning. “You finish with a new beginning.” How do we know we are moving out of the Neutral Zone? We begin to gain greater clarity about the path of our transformation. We genuinely reach for the change, seeing in it the possibilities of what can be true. We have the sense of emerging engagement and dedication to the success of the transformation. Our leadership team, having gone through this transition with us, speaks the language of, “What task can we now take on as an organization, a task so monumental it requires all of us?”

David Logan’s TED talk about tribal leadership complements Bridges’ work with regard to how we guide people to a more powerful and devoted transformation. If individuals think, ”My life sucks,” then we start there. Use language that invites people to view the transformation as a way to move from what sucks to a place of feeling great. We move through stages of, “I’m great, and you’re not,” to an organizational sense of “We’re great!” When we pay attention to these important steps in transition, we feed the fire of a great agile transformation: for individuals, for our teams and for our entire organization.

Steve Farber talks about leadership born of love, energy, audacity and proof. Here’s where we show up for successful agile transformations. Out of our love, energy, audacity and proof, we lead agile transformations informed by the necessary work of transition. We do this in service to our teams—the people who, with great anticipation, love what we do.

Pulling It All Together: Be Your Kindness

Agile transformations are hard for systems, for organizations, and most importantly, for humans. Acknowledging the potential ways a transformation can fail helps you build awareness of where your best intentions either engender success or perpetuate deflating failures.

Let’s review the 12 failure modes in agile transformation:

  1. Lack of Executive Sponsorship
  2. Failure to Transform Leader Behaviors
  3. No Change to the Organizational Infrastructure
  4. No Business View of the Value Stream
  5. Failure to Decentralize Control
  6. Unwillingness to Address Illusions Around Distributed Teams
  7. Lack of a Transformational Product Manager
  8. Failure to Create Fast Feedback
  9. Short-changing Collaboration and Facilitation
  10. Ineffective Plan for Transforming Beyond IT
  11. Viewing Transformation Solely as Process and Structure
  12. Ignoring the Path of Individual, Team and Organizational Transitions

In outlining these 12 failure modes, I have taken a very personal perspective on what I view as the modes that cause us the most pain. Now, here is my invitation to you:

  • Re-read the 12 failure modes.
  • Decide on the pain that each mode is causing you, or could be causing you.
  • Find out what is the most painful for you personally. Which is the one that catches your breath or brings an immediate sense of exasperation?

This is how you’ll know where to start in creating and sustaining a healthy transformation. Be a kindness to yourself in how you bring this information into your organization, your teams and your life.

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